Tensions Flare Between Neighbors After Afghan Man Kills Iranian Clerics

The Taliban, a Sunni Muslim militant group, is wary of Iran, a regional Shiite power that has previously backed the Taliban’s opponents. Iran fears that Afghanistan under Taliban rule could again become a safe haven for terrorists intent on targeting Shiites and Iran.

Since last year, Iran has carefully cultivated a policy that did not officially recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government but engaged in diplomatic relations, in order not to antagonize it.

“The more tensions rise between Iran and Afghanistan, the worse it gets for refugees in Iran because public opinion turns negative toward them,” said Dawood Qayomi, a former Afghan diplomat who served in Iran.

About five million Afghans now live in Iran, according to Iranian estimates. Most belong to two minority ethnic groups — the Hazara, who are Shiite Muslim, and Tajik Afghans, who have close cultural ties to Iran. Both have crossed the border for decades amid threats of prosecution by the Taliban and to seek better economic opportunities.

The stabbings on April 6 shocked Iranians partly because terrorist attacks are extremely rare in the country and partly because the Imam Reza shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, is considered a safe sanctuary.

The attack occurred during the first week of the holy month of Ramadan. One of the clerics died on the spot, another succumbed to injuries several days later and the third survived with extensive injuries to his hands and body, Iranian media reported. The surviving cleric described a chaotic scene where the attacker stabbed him from behind and chased him when he tried to escape, according to the reports.

Videos of the attack published on Iranian media show the clerics lying, bleeding, in the courtyard, people running to help them, and a crowd of onlookers capturing the assailant, beating him and screaming at him before handing him over to security guards.

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